Venturing into the challenging territory of selling to the end user

By Benjamin Brits

Plumbers and plumbing companies are essentially the solder of the joints between manufacturers and the end user, but it’s not as clean cut as changing a washer.

Selling to consumers or the end user is a scenario that involves two crucial relationships: that of the manufacturer with the plumber, and the plumber with the consumer. Suppliers want their products to reach the end user, and plumbers need to choose the right products for the application, while being exposed to multiple brands, options, and desires of the consumer.

question markNow while some manufacturers and suppliers venture into selling directly to the end user, the question one really has to ask is, is this best practice for the plumbing industry? Most end users lack the understanding and the experience required to perform their own plumbing work and have a limited knowledge of products.

Selling to the end user involves many aspects to consider, such as compliance, standards, and the law. Credit: Creative Commons

On the other hand, as a country we have seen very slow development of service delivery, water shortages, a financially constrained economy, and the overall level of trust decreasing. This leads to the end user becoming much more involved in decisions such as brand choice.

“It is common nowadays that the end users are spending more time educating themselves on what products they want and what other people’s reviews on these products are. Based on their research they then have a leaning towards certain brands,” says Mark Moyce, national sales and marketing director of Kwikot. Specifically, with the rise of social media as a vehicle to voice an opinion or dissatisfaction as we have seen in other industries, bad reviews can devastate a brand’s reputation.

Working the solutions

One thing not to be benched or taken lightly with regard to selling to the end user, is the fact that plumbers spend a significant amount of time in qualifying for their trade. A three-year apprenticeship after basic theory has been covered, shows the importance of developing the right knowledge through experience. As we are all aware, plumbing does not just mean connecting two pipes together — it involves pressures, flow rates, pipe sizing, correct fall levels, understanding of electrical components, and so on — all aspects that the end user has neither an understanding of, or real concern over.

Despite this, in some countries around the world, the end user is choosing to DIY in vastly more sectors, including plumbing. This is happening for a variety of trainingreasons, such as financial challenges and a lack of service delivery — especially in low-income areas. If you look at the state of informal settlements, the residents lack basic services such as water and toilets, but more than this: funds to invest in any sort of significant plumbing and sanitation. They are therefore often left with no choice but to go it alone, selecting products based on limited information that they hope best suits their need. It is not a case of quality and how long the product is going to last, but rather finding a functional solution.

Product training is a significant element for plumbers and end users alike, to strengthen their knowledge of products or brands. Credit: Creative Commons

End users at these levels are doing everything from installing pipes, taps, and toilet mechanisms to harvesting and using rainwater and grey water resources. This is perhaps one of the strongest reasons why trained professionals should be executing these types of installations, and access to the related products should possibly be limited to plumbers alone.

“People always want to cut costs and the reality is that the general population, without the correct knowledge and understanding of health and risks, are coming up with their own solutions. Harvesting of rainwater and use of grey water have been in effect for years now in areas like Cape Town. The drought problem is not going away, and in fact it is spreading to other provinces, so people are coming up with their own solutions anyway,” Moyce notes.

I’m sure there have been many stories of potential DIY projects by the end user that have resulted in some sort of damage or potential risk. This is particularly relevant for backflow prevention where potable water can be contaminated by various pathogens from rainwater or borehole water as examples, which can lead to serious illness, and even death.

“When it comes to ‘cosmetic products’ such as a basin, bath, tap, or changing a washer, by all means, let the end user be involved, but any time a plumbing job requires working on pipes, geysers, drains, mixers, and so on, it is essential that a qualified plumber takes on this responsibility. This ensures compliance as well as safety,” says Brendan Reynolds, executive director of the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA).

Standards and accountability

There are various compulsory SANS codes of practice, building regulations, and local water bylaws that plumbers need to abide by and the end user most likely has no interest in. All of these compulsory standards require that a qualified plumber performs the work and issues a certificate of compliance (CoC) under certain installations. In the Western Cape, the issuing of CoCs for the plumbing on the sale of a property has become mandatory [as with electrical CoCs] and this in time will follow through to other regions of South Africa. Only a qualified plumber may issue a CoC and therefore, the work the end user can perform would be limited.

legalAt the end of 2018, the amendments to the National Building Regulations implemented in full effect, were passed and subsequently, one of the major effects of these changes is that insurance companies may not pay out claims if the necessary compliance is not in order, which has a direct impact on the end user. This information is now becoming mainstream in the consumer environment. With this knowledge, the end users will likely be more vigilant as to plumbing work in general, as well as the quality of products. Plumbers will need to be equipped with product information and suppliers will need to ensure plumbers have access to this information, as well as to making it available to the end users.

According to the amended building regulations, only qualified plumbers are allowed to perform certain plumbing tasks and therefore, the end user cannot be involved. Credit: Creative Commons

“These amendments, specifically SANS 10254 (Installation, replacement and repair of hot water system), will be particularly relevant in convincing plumbers to make use of SANS-compliant products. Unfortunately, we see many plumbers not upholding their role of being the responsible party when it comes to looking after health and safety as well as the security of water.

“If they don’t have to issue a CoC, they may still get away with putting in any product to make more money, because at this stage, no one is going to check it. This is not responsible behaviour,” says Patrick Gordon, training manager for Lixil Water Technology.

Keeping the edge on brands

Products themselves, whether cisterns, taps, mixers, or valves, need to meet SANS requirements, and manufacturers must ensure that their products are compliant according to their certification process and testing. Unfortunately, not all products available in South Africa do meet minimum requirements, but no matter the plumber or the end user, this must be transparent to them.

Plumbers, and the end user, develop an affinity for certain brands. “A lot of brand preference is about relationships, where the user has an experience with the product and likes it for its features, quality, or appeal. For plumbers, it’s the relationship with the manufacturer and their involvement with the brand over time and the training received on the products. Plumbers are more likely to support brands they know and have been trained on because it’s a product they understand,” Gordon says.

Moyce adds that “although a significant investment, looking at the results, product training not only gives awareness and knowledge of your brand, it also contributes to skills development, which is so valuable in South Africa due to the skills shortage and lack of employment opportunities. There is a hunger for knowledge and advancement, and what plumbers and end users see, is involvement and participation in the industry, which further strengthens the bond.”

Training is only one element suppliers can use to their advantage; other notable elements are the warranties and backup services. There are substantial differences when selling to an end user and selling to a developer, where backup service would be much more important.

Gordon notes, “What we often see on larger projects, is that alternate products are used, so all of the features and benefits that are built into products and sold to the architects and specifiers are not necessarily what ends up on the sites, because the installer chooses the product they are able to make the most money out of. This potentially affects the backup service, especially in cases where an imported product is used. Imports very often do not have service agents locally, so in these cases, the installer being the plumber, or the end user, would have to take out the faulty unit, take it back to the supplier, get a replacement and then re-install, all at their own cost. So, the difference in warranties plays a big role in terms of backup service, because when something goes wrong, it is either easy to have the unit replaced, or difficult and costly to resolve.”

Final cut

Although some manufacturers or suppliers may not have any strict rules regarding who they sell to, as their business is selling their products to whoever wants to purchase them, the future considerations of training and the law need to be considered. If the manufacturers or suppliers allow direct sales to the end user, a much more significant investment in training or installation manuals may be required to ensure compliance as well as health and safety.

“Although suppliers or manufacturers on the one hand may make direct sales to the end user, and even with specialist outlets and showrooms, we must be aware that there is still the critical factor of limited knowledge. Although some companies have really good technical experts in their professional teams, these are really very few people if you consider the vast number of outlets where plumbing products can be purchased in South Africa. With this limited knowledge, we can expect the same limited knowledge to be passed on to the end user,” Reynolds stresses.

Further, he says that “on the other hand, the plumber is faced with different challenges, such as when the end user has purchased all of the goods already and cannot (or won’t) install them because they are non-compliant, or disagreements with the engineer or architect on bigger projects that may lead to the termination of services. There are of course ways to resolve this, but the risk is always losing the work.”

All in all, a prickly situation with many variables to deal with, but one thing we need to all remember is that whether it’s a plumber or an end user doing the work, it is not just themselves they need to think about. When things go well, there are no issues, but when things go wrong, it may overlap to larger consequences.

Reynolds concludes, “One thing we must be very mindful of is that especially in South Africa, we live in a culture of reactive behaviour. When people are enabled to do things themselves without the necessary understanding, they possibly endanger themselves and their communities. Should we really wait for the time when a geyser explodes or when grey water contaminates a community’s resources because it was installed or worked on by someone unqualified?”


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